Wiping tears gives us clear vision
Wiping her eyes, then nose, seemed to be the signal for the man to quietly walk to a few metres from Sophie’s side. He smiled gently as she apologised, then pointed to the names on the sign made of tin.
‘This may have been done by Emmanuelle’s husband,’ Sophie muttered, ‘but it’s a bit rough for him to have done. He was making little tanks and ships when I met him in 1985.’ She stroked the names. ‘But then again, he may have improved a lot in the years from 1981. I knew that family would have done something special. I can’t imagine my aunt Emmanuelle not doing anything. She was the one who found her mum. Around sixteen years of age, she ran away from home with her husband-to-be.’
The man knelt stiffly, but once seated on the grass, cap still on his head, he was at ease, his right arm resting over his right knee, the wrist grasped lightly by his left as he listened attentively.
Sophie babbled on, ‘Emmanuelle was the most emotional in speaking to me about her mother, Alida. But her English wasn’t good, and her husband wasn’t able to speak a word of English.’ Sophie looked at the man. He waited expectantly. She continued, ‘I don’t know why they didn’t bring me to the grave. At the time I first came to Europe, it was only four years after Alida died. Maybe the emotions were too overwhelming for me at just twenty-four years old, or, more likely, I couldn’t really understand what they were saying much of the time. My Dutch was really basic then.’
The man prompted Sophie to keep talking. ‘Nico hadn’t seen Alida since she was removed when he was aged twelve, and my mum was aged three, so she really didn’t know much about what was happening. Emmanuelle said that all the children had to call the mistress ‘Aunt’ until Alida was removed. Then they all had to call her ‘Mother’. The man’s nod seemed show he knew of this type of situation. ‘But as Bea, Nico’s wife, agreed with me, it was Emmanuelle at just eight years old, who would have been quite aware of what was going on, and miss her mother, Alida. That was 1933.’
‘But she was recorded as institutionalised in 1949?’
‘Yes, I read that in the email. But all the family members said my mum was aged three, Emmanuelle told me she was eight, and Bea’s husband had told her he was twelve when Alida was taken away.”
‘How long have you been coming to Holland?’
Sophie smiled. ‘Thirty-two years. Both Emmanuelle and her husband, plus Bea who is still very alert at ninety-four, have said the same thing over all these years. We know that Alida was got rid of in 1933 when her son was twelve, Therese eleven and the others as I’ve said.’
‘So, she must have gone to another place before 1949?’
Bea had tried to tell me as much as she could. However, she was very careful not to say that Alida said something which she didn’t. But there was one quote which has been consistent over all these years, where Alida declined Bea’s invitation to come and live with her and Nico, by saying, ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with myself after all these years; I would be a burden on you.’
The man nodded and leaned forward with the smile especially in his eyes. ‘We call it institutionalisation.’
‘So, she wasn’t crazy?’ He nodded in total agreement.
‘Do you know her diagnosis?’
‘There is no diagnosis,’ he said immediately.
Sophie was quick to say, ‘Exactly as I thought. She was put into an institution just to get her out of the way.’
‘What I mean is that I am not allowed to access that record. Just this morning I asked the CEO about Alida, but was not allowed to access the records to bring to you.’
‘Mmm… that’s why I didn’t come last year. All these privacy laws, which have their place. But it is important for family members to know their background because it helps to understand their own difficulties.’
‘Record-keeping would’ve been very difficult during the war.’ The man’s eyes seemed to sink back into their sockets. ‘When I was training to be a nurse, we learned how patients with mental illness had to be moved many times to protect them from Hitler’s cruelty.’
‘I’m sure you would’ve told me by now, but I have to ask if you cared for my oma Alida when you were nursing.’
He shook his head. ‘No, I didn’t come to work here until 2000.’
‘Do you know anybody who did?’ Sophie’s neck stretched high.
‘I’m sorry, no, and it would be very difficult to find anybody who might have done so, given that Alida died thirty-six years ago.’
Wiping her eyes, Sophie nodded as her head and shoulders drooped.
The nurse cleared his throat. ‘Some of us who are now retired work as volunteers, collecting as much information about the people who lived here as we can. So, is there more you can tell me about Alida?’
He inclined his head as his eyes searched hers.
‘Yes, I am sure Mum’s depression must’ve been very severe after the births of her three daughters. We were often looked after by family friends. She didn’t cope that well with most of life really…’
‘Actually, on medical grounds, there might be a way,’ He brightened. ‘You will need to email the Director of Psychiatry.’
‘Will you please email me their email address?’
He nodded enthusiastically, lifted his cap and wiped his head.
‘Do you know which building she was in?’
He nodded again, ‘But wait, I can show you.’ He hurried up to his bike while Sophie found her phone photos. On his return, she stood to show him, but he shook his head at each building. He knelt to open a bulging large lever arch file, with a stare that had pre-empted previous bad news.
Wiping out history?
‘It’s not here anymore.’
Wiping her brow, with mouth gaping, she asked, ‘You mean it’s been demolished?’
He nodded and pointed to an old, coloured map, ‘You see this big space? There was a very large building here, a sister’s convent here, and the brothers on the other side.’
His voice lowered, as he took another book from his bag. He opened it where an A4 page had been inserted. ‘This was the building with a church in the middle where, until 1976, there was no access between men and women.’
Sophie stared at the old map with a monstrosity which dwarfed the buildings around it. ‘I have seen how big these buildings are. But this is…’
Wiping the page, the nurse murmured, ‘It was awful. Many people, including staff, campaigned to have it demolished.’
Sophie whispered, ‘So Alida didn’t have a very nice life in there.’
‘No. I’m afraid not.’
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